Straight sex is not a disaster. That's the plot of Sally Rooney's novels.

This is perhaps hard to take. After all, as Peter Coviello notes, Eve Sedgwick taught us that heterosexuality is a disaster. If the central theme of Between Men runs something like "gay panic obscures gay desire," and the key claim of Epistemology of the Closet pushes this argument further, and suggests that heterosexuality works as a vise thwarting not only queer desire but straight desire, too, then the force of heterosex as ethos is a powerfully warping one.

But there might be a way to think about the anxiety around straight sex in Rooney's novels as reflecting a strange overcorrection brought about by Sedgwick's formulations (which might be something like: "straight sex obscures queer desire"). Can we think a bit more about what a straight version of a Sedgwickian sex life looks like? It is in this light that Rooney is troublesome for a sexuality studies framing: in her novels, even the most heterosexual sex vanilla sex! can be wholly, mind-shiftingly pleasurable, if it lacks coercion, social pressure, angst, and envy (Further, I'd suggest it can be pleasurable even without these important structural and logistical caveats, but let's stick with the idealized version for now).

Sexual pleasure is a complicated concept for analyses that situate their claims through political frameworks, in part because pleasure can clearly push against politics (think of the deep attention to fascistic aesthetics in some BDSM cultures), but also because once one imagines pleasure as tied to or expressive of one's politics, one lands in a realm of potential coercion or even just a space that inhibits sexual desire because those desires do not chime with one's political desires. What are the social or political limits on our desired objects or acts? How can we understand our sex lives in relation to the political or social worlds in which we are embedded? Pleasure and politics can't co-exist easily, because pleasure does not fit itself to either ideology or ideology's destruction. Whenever I think about the uneasy relationship between politics and pleasure I think about a Marxist I know who once told me the project of the scholar of culture is to dislodge ideology from aesthetics. But, I complained, that isn't what most people would mean: it isn't a problem if the political stance occupied by the aesthetic object is one that is agreed upon. I remember the beat it took for him to realize that, yes, he had been imagining that ideology could only describe the hegemonic, and that, yes, that was a problem. In these terms: heterosex (as Sedgwick also taught us) was never a monoculture, it just plays one in academic discourse.

Given the machinations of patriarchal power, it can seem like heterosexuality is psychologically and politically doomed. Instances of positive heterosexuality are imagined to be fleeting and temporary, or maybe even a kind of false consciousness. But this isn't a problem for Rooney, which is why at the end of Normal People, Connell and Marianne come to an understanding if their romance is thwarted by distance, it doesn't mean the romance is not meaningful, sustaining, or, frankly, romantic. This is not a totalizing understanding. Instead of finding the fragility of heterosexuality as a sign of that sexuality's insipidity, Rooney insists that despite its vulnerabilities, it is worthwhile and self-sustaining. There is still threat to their romance, the threat of vulnerability and of undoing. Conversations with Friends' ending, poised between infidelity and romance, is less given to this structure than Normal People's, which ends with Connell's impending move to the US, but the formality of its closure is similar. At Conversations' end, Frances responds to her married lover's rationalizations about their romance and its impossibility: "'Come and get me,' I said."1 The brittle last pronouncement seems to dismiss, or at least limit, the difficulty of the discussion of infidelity that immediately precedes it. The strange misery of the lukewarm, conventional endings in Rooney's two novels is not lost on me. There is always something that can go wrong in these compacts. But, the fact of these happy endings is, I think, a trouble a complaint for lots of critics.

This is because Sedgwick was (and is) right, in the same way that Leo Bersani was (and is) right. Heterosexuality thinking of heterosexuality as a plotline: plumbed, straight, teleological is disastrous.

But what happens when we follow these theorists' dicta and eviscerate the hold heterosexuality has on sex? It is not that a lambent queerness silvers everything. It is that heterosexuality, dislodged from its place of story, its place of plot, is given the license to just be. And that, horrifyingly enough, is what happens in Normal People. Marianne experiments with sex but the experiments leave her cold. Neither lesbianism nor masochistic play work for her. Her heterosexuality is not compulsory. Rooney has internalized Sedgwick and Bersani, even if she hasn't read them: she writes straight characters in a queer world.

Sally Rooney's sexual plots draw attention to a difficult maybe intractable? problem with the relationship between contemporary literature and sexuality studies. A new teleology has crept in to replace the old one, and it is as insidious as the one it replaced. It goes like this: sex is a structure that must be mastered, and that mastery looks like a progression from vanilla straight sex into something queer. Queerness is capacious and always an improvement on the straightness that came before. Gay, lesbian, bondaged, be-butt-plugged, poly-, it's all better for you politically and aesthetically than the leaden heterosex that you grew up thinking was synonymous with plot. The problem for sexuality studies is that this, weirdly, isn't how sexual plots usually work in the realist novel these days. And if, as Jordan Stein notes, BDSM can be a realm where women find sexual (and intellectual?) pleasures, it isn't the case that BDSM activates sexual pleasure for all women. At the heart of Sally Rooney's project thus far is this important fact: heterosexual love does not have to be disastrous. It might end, and even then, it still might not be disastrous.

Queer theory has done transformative things for the ways we see sex and literature and for how literature is written. Thanks to the last forty-odd years of queer readings and enhanced queer legibility, compulsory heterosexuality is painfully, explicitly visible. But, the new teleology from straight to queer is, I should be clear, false. In part because sex is not, as this teleology hopes, intrinsically political. Sexuality, yes: that is political. But it is bizarre and as I've been suggesting, coercive to confuse pleasure with politics, especially in the realm of the sexual, which is messy, inchoate, unsettling, and often beyond our political lives. And that also means that, strangely enough, we have to live with Connell and Marianne's happy ending. Because the sex they have together is really good, and they both enjoy it. And this is the part where Rooney's plotting makes the point explicit: both Marianne and Connell find pleasure in their pretty straight, pretty conventional sex: they've tried other things, and they haven't liked them as much. The sex is good! Which is only a problem if you think their sex should be bad.

Rooney's novels don't do what Peter Coviello, Jordan Stein, and Gloria Fisk want them to do. They (perhaps) don't do what Rooney wants them to do. They fail as progressive political projects because the project they most hold dear is a formally conservative one. And yet Rooney's careful framing redeems the apparent conservatism of her plots, of her characters' choices. She is not dismissing the value of queer and sexually expansive lives, not suggesting that the people who find queer and kinky sex affirming, enhancing, or deeply, inalienably right for them are wrong, misguided, or sick. Marianne and Connell can retreat to their quiet sex life because not only have they tried other ways, but they also understand and this is important that their sex lives are not their political lives. They understand that their sexual lives are not being attacked, dismissed, or shunted into legal or social danger zones. What Sally Rooney doesn't do, and this might be where I find her most unsettling politically, is suggest that Connell and Marianne have a responsibility (which I think they do) to work against the conservative impulse that the social world affords their sexual and romantic lives. There is, to be sure, a slippage into a kind of cozy relativism at Normal People's end, the sort that is deeply objectionable in these worrying political times: what happens when your sexuality is politicized by the wider world?

What does the literary critic do from here? Maybe what Fisk outlines: draw attention to the sexist and heterosexist structures that condition the characters' lives. Or: draw out the critical tendency to paint heterosexual love plots with unduly broad strokes, especially when they are as carefully managed and represented as Rooney's. If we are more attentive to the shape of courtship, its limits and its pleasures, we might see a way forward for reading heterosex alongside homosex, instead of as its dowdy, old-fashioned, virtuous cousin.

In writing this, I kept coming back to Jordan Stein's point about Connell's copy of Middlemarch, and the apparent mistake in thinking that Eliot's novel is about women and flowers. For me, Eliot's novel is the story of a woman, not with flowers, but of them. After all, Rosamond Lydgate her head turning like a "flexuous flower" (sigh); her delicate, bud-like, warped soul is half of a couple whose sex lives were at (in that novel, horrible!) odds with their social, political, and ethical aims, and for me, she has always been the ghost-heroine of Eliot's story. If we think of Middlemarch in this light, it becomes the story of a woman who thought she could supplant sex with plot (Dorothea), a woman whose plot is subsumed by sex (Mary Garth), and a woman, the flower in the novel's center, who pushes plot and sex together in an awful, discordant rhyme.

Claire Jarvis is the author of Exquisite Masochism. She lives in Northern California with her family.


  1. Sally Rooney, Normal People (New York: Penguin/Hogarth, 2018), 80.[]